A songful salute to Morten Lauridsen

Times Staff Writer

USC threw a 60th musical birthday party for composer Morten Lauridsen on Tuesday in the Alfred Newman Recital Hall. He has spent more than half his life on the faculty of that institution, where he also studied composition. But the program, spanning four decades of his work, showed how he grew beyond being a respected academic to become one of the most performed -- and beloved -- American composers.

Tuesday's festivities were delayed when a fire alarm accidentally went off in the hall minutes before the program was to start. Loud buzzing sounded for about 10 minutes, but accompanying strobe lights kept firing for half an hour. Nobody was upset, however. Some people -- this was largely a music student and faculty group, after all -- began humming, trying to match the pitches of the alarm.

Lauridsen genially kept the overflow audience apprised of the situation. A fireman in full working gear opened one of the doors leading to the stage and got a round of applause. It was almost as if all this were part of a new music event.

But Lauridsen doesn't write that kind of music. The closest he came in the pieces on the Tuesday program was using multiphonics -- the sounding of more than one pitch at a time by an instrument that normally can't do that kind of thing. But that was as an expressive device in "Canticle" for solo clarinet, composed in 1989 as a memorial to his former teacher Halsey Stevens.

The concert also featured compressed, thorny pieces -- Variations (1972) for solo piano -- and demanding, text-sensitive works -- "Cuarto Canciones" (1983) on poems of Lorca. But lyrical harmonies and melodies pointing to the music that has won him millions of listeners sounded as early as "Mid-Winter Songs" (1980) and the last of the a cappella "Madrigali: Six 'FireSongs' on Italian Renaissance Poems" (1987).

Even so, "O Magnum Mysterium," written in 1994, was like a bolt from the blue, arresting in its spiritual authenticity and purity. It was sung with loving sensitivity by the Donald Brinegar Singers, a model for what the USC Thornton Chamber Choir -- the earlier choral group on the program, led by William Dehining -- might aspire to. In other pieces, soprano Anne Marie Ketchum was the authoritative, professional soloist. Most of the other musicians were skilled students.

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